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Exhibit shares little-told tale of Jewish refugees' time in China

Holocaust survivor shares her tale of being a refugee in Shanghai
ASU exhibit focuses on the stories of Jewish refugees who relocated to Shanghai
October 18, 2015

The interesting thing about this Holocaust story is that it’s rarely been told.

The account centers around Irma Glahs Gottlieb, a 95-year-old Scottsdale woman who survived the Nazi purge of Germany in the 1930s by moving to Shanghai, China.

While much of the Jewish diaspora connects survival stories to relocations in North America or other parts of Europe, the Holocaust’s connection to Shanghai is a lesser-known chapter of this tragic history.

Gottlieb’s bit of the narrative is something she has only told a handful of people up to this point, and only in bits and pieces to her children over the years.

“Actually, I didn’t want to talk about this but my children think I should talk about it,” Gottlieb said. “Why should they hear about all the hardships we had because eventually we lived a normal life? That’s what we called it — a ‘normal life.’ I felt the past was the past.”

Gottlieb has opened the past and shared her story publicly for the first time as part of the “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai” exhibit, which is currently up and running through Dec. 15 at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in Phoenix and at ASU’s Hayden Library on the Tempe campus.

Irma Gottlieb

Irma Gottlieb is one of many Jewish refugees
who resettled in Shanghai during the 1930s
while Jews were still allowed to leave Nazi Germany.

Photo and video (below) by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The exhibit is sponsored by ASU’s Confucius Institute, Center for Jewish Studies, and the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, and will feature artifacts, photographs, documents, and personal stories, like Gottlieb’s. Planned events throughout the exhibit’s run will include several lectures, a film screening and a book discussion.

“It’s a story we need to pay attention to because it’s still so relevant,” said Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of the ASU’s Center for Jewish Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We are in the midst of a major migration crisis in our country and Europe. It begs the question, what is our obligation to people in duress who have no other place to go?”

Gottlieb, who hailed from Succow, a small farming community in Germany, said hers was the only Jewish family in the town of 900 people.

“My first years were very, very playful and I had everything I could ask for. I’m an only child so needless to say I was very spoiled,” Gottlieb said. “The only time I knew I was different than the other kids is when the Jewish holidays came. Then my parents took me to a synagogue in the next town.”

By 1933, the atmosphere for Jews in Germany had become troublesome as persecution and violence became more commonplace. Gottlieb said it was a slow boil that started with being ignored by classmates while others taunted her. It became unbearable when her instructor refused to teach her.

So her parents, who owned a general store in Succow, sent her to a finishing school in Lehnitz, which was a donated mansion just outside of Berlin. The school was started by the Jewish community so that children and teens who had been excluded by their communities could continue their educations.

“During the morning and day we’d have lectures and I’d work on several languages (she is fluent in German, French and English) and in the afternoon we kept house,” Gottlieb said. “We’d clean, iron and peel potatoes in the kitchen, and every Friday night we’d have a rabbi who’d come to the house and hold service. That was the first time I actually felt comforted.”

That comfort didn’t last long. On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, a wave of anti-Semitic violence took place throughout Germany, Austria and areas of Czechoslovakia in what historians describe as Kristallnact (“Night of Broken Glass). The name depicts the act of Hitler Youth and SS officers smashing the windows of synagogues, homes and more than 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, burning many of them to the ground. Jewish cemeteries were also desecrated.

It was a clear sign to Gottlieb’s father, and many other Jews, that they needed to leave the country. But it wouldn’t be easy.

According to Gottlieb, the German government forced her family to sell the general store “for a song” and departing Jews could only leave the country with 10 marks in their pockets.

At that time, there were only a handful of countries that would take in Jewish refugees. Gottlieb’s family was originally going to flee to the United States, but visa restrictions were difficult and required an affidavit, a sponsor, and a waiting period because of a quota.

They didn’t feel like waiting was an option. Gottlieb's father had already been picked up by the Nazis and then released because he'd been a decorated World War I vet.

But Shanghai was an open city, with no visa requirements — though some form of documentation was required to exit Europe.

Jewish refugees obtained documentation in various ways, including through the aid of relief organizations. But a significant number of them received the necessary documents through the efforts of He Feng Shan, the Chinese consul in Vienna who is often described as the “Chinese Shindler,” and Sigihara Chiune, the Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania.

As a result, Shanghai became a modern-day “Noah’s Ark,” accepting some 18,000 Jewish refugees and offering them shelter.

Gottlieb and her parents fled Germany by taking a train to Genoa, Italy, where they boarded the SS Victoria, a small luxury cruise ship.

“Suddenly I could talk and dance,” said Gottlieb, who was 18 when she boarded the ship. “I didn’t have to watch what I said and nobody was stopping me. I still have the tickets.”

But that trip was the first and last taste of happiness she experienced in years. Gottlieb said the four-week journey became surreal — many of the young men on the ship had been released from concentration camps and were either bald or shaved.

And when Gottlieb and the other refugees eventually disembarked in Shanghai, she received a cultural and economic jolt.

“We went from luxury to nothing in one day. We didn’t really know what to expect.” Gottlieb said. “They put us in back of a truck and brought us to a refugee camp in Hongkew. Men were placed in one section, women in the other. We slept in bunk beds.”

Almost 77 years later, Gottlieb can still recall their inaugural meal in a large dining hall with a long wooden bench and table: a hard-boiled egg, a piece of bread and cold tea in a tin cup. Before anyone took a bite, an angry refugee rolled his egg down the table and tossed the piece of bread to the floor. Through clinched teeth, he announced the meal wasn’t fit for a dog. Gottlieb said silence engulfed the room.

“That was the hardest moment. It was very sad and sadder even now when I think about what my parents must have felt,” Gottlieb said. “I think I realized for the first time … I think I cried.”

But at least they were out of Germany.

“As bad as things might have been in Shanghai, they weren’t half as bad as for the Jews in Europe,” said Robert Joe Cutter, director of the Confucius Institute. “Had they stayed in Europe, about 90 percent of them would have been dead. It did save their lives.”

The Glahs' eventually moved into a dilapidated home, purchased by a Jewish family who rented the family a room. The room had no hot water, kitchen or for that matter, a bathroom — only a bucket.

Gottlieb’s father made daily trips to the camp to bring back their daily ration of soup, which is what they existed on for several months.

Life eventually got better over time. Eventually a container filled with some of the Glahs' home possesions arrived.

However, they were forced to sell many of these creature comforts for food and money.

“My mother would say, ‘Today we eat a chair. Tomorrow we eat a desk.’ It was basically whatever my dad sold that day,” Gottlieb said.

The Jewish refugees eventually settled into their new surroundings and created businesses, bakeries, schools, synagogues, grocery stores, restaurants, bookstores, boutiques and clothing stores. Musicians played concerts on a rooftop garden, acting troupes entertained the refugees, and sports — boxing, football, tennis and table tennis — became popular diversions.

So did the movies. Gottlieb recalled seeing a screening of “Gone With the Wind” in Shanghai for a dime. For four hours, the Hollywood classic gave her a temporary distraction.

“We all tried to live as normal as we could. We had school, our own teachers and the people were just angels — the people who donated money so we could have food and schools and concerts,” Gottlieb said. “For me, everything was wonderful because I didn’t have to wonder who was behind me and could say things freely. I looked at it differently, like a young person would.”

Gottlieb’s teen years gave way to adulthood when she met her husband Erich at a summer camp created for refugee children who needed a respite from the trauma of their forced exits back home. He wanted to marry her on the spot, but her parents said no. He had a job with the Chinese Salt Administration and her parents feared he would take her into the interior of China and they would never see her again.

“My parents said, ‘If he feels the same way about you when he comes back, then you can get married,’ ” Gottlieb said. “So he did.”

Erich returned two years later and in June 1941, they were married in front of the German consulate at the insistence of her parents, who wanted it to be legal in the eyes of the German government.

Gottlieb instantly recognized the act as ironic, given the fact they were stateless. And there’s also that reminder of why they left.

“My marriage license has a swastika,” Gottlieb wryly said.

Old wedding photo
Irma Gottlieb is seen in a wedding photograph with her husband when they married in Shanghai in 1941. Deanna Dent/ASU Now

When World War II broke out in 1939, Erich and Irma safely made their way to Chungking, China, where they lived for the next few years. She didn’t see her parents for four years and only had contact with them through two letters, delivered by the American Red Cross.

After the war, Gottlieb found her parents in a Japanese ghetto in Hongkew. Later they all moved together to the United States, eventually settling in the Chicago area, where Irma and Erich raised a family and finally returned to a 'normal life.'

Gottlieb’s daughter Evelyn Simon, who was born in Shanghai, said her mother has left out many of the darker details of her ordeal, but that the light outshines the darkness.

“There is a lot of dysfunction and trauma that goes from generation to generation in regards to the Holocaust, but that wasn’t totally the case with us,” Simon said. “My parents didn’t want to color our vision of the world growing up. A lot of this information hasn’t come up until recently.”

Gottlieb’s vision of the past remains mostly positive and agrees with Holocaust historian David Kranzler, describing the relocation as “The Miracle of Shanghai.”

“I am very, very lucky to be here because all of my friends have passed away from not enough food, medicine and illnesses,” Gottlieb said. “Our life was saved by going to Shanghai whereas every other country had the doors closed. I definitely see Shanghai as a haven.”

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ProMod helps ASU students succeed by working together.
ProMod allows ASU students to streamline education.
ASU's new ProMod program aims to build freshmen retention rates.
October 19, 2015

ASU's ProMod program aims to streamline education, raise freshmen retention rates

Many freshmen come to college excited to learn about their majors — but sometimes less enthusiastic about all the first-year courses they’re required to take.

That’s one of the reasons why Arizona State University is trying an innovative model that could transform the way college students take classes by combining three courses and allowing them to produce real work.

The method, called ProModProMod stands for “project-based modular learning.", is being piloted by a few hundred students this semester. It streamlines the curriculum by combining general-education courses with classes in the students’ majors. There are fewer lectures and more teamwork. At the end of the year, the students have a tangible product — such as an artwork or a treatment plan.

“I think one thing that hurts the kids is a lack of coherence in the curriculum,” said Elizabeth Capaldi Phillips, professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Thirty percent of ‘introduction to bio’ is the same as ‘introduction to psych.’ That’s not fair and it’s not sensible because you should be building on knowledge.”

Capaldi PhillipsCapaldi Phillips is also provost emerita, a University Professor and co-director of the Obesity Solutions Initiative at ASU., who is on the team that’s leading the ProMod initiative, said,  “Project-based learning is one way of making things coherent, engaging the students and getting them to see the connections and care about what they’re learning.”

While project-based learning in a course is not new to ASU, combining courses and asking students to solve a problem is a reinvention. For example, kinesiology students take Kinesiology 101, Psychology 101 and English 101 in their module, in which they are developing an evidence-based treatment plan for lower-back pain. They learn about anatomy and treatment in the kinesiology part, how to get patients to comply in the psychology portion, and how to write concisely and coherently about their work in the English part.

Students with a white board

ProMod students

Joshua Bowser and fellow students work on their heat-island
reduction project in the ProMod program at Cesar Chavez High School.

Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

ASU has already overcome a major logistical problem with ProMod. Although the students take three courses together in a module, the classes are still graded separately on their transcripts.

“The registrar was a genius on that,” Capaldi Phillips said. “They’ll still get grades because if they want to go to medical school, they want to see grades.”

More than 300 students in 14 ASU programs are participating in the modules, taught by faculty teams, and the goal is for their entire degree to be project-based.

Along the way, they will learn skills that employers are demanding: writing, presentation, problem-solving and the all-important understanding of collaboration.

The students can see the connections in their classwork and appreciate that the required general-education courses are not a waste of time and money.

“I was excited about this because they wanted to make a change and it puts meaning into the course,” said Itzel Martinez Mejia, a freshman who is taking the ProMod in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre.

ProMod was started this fall, and it’s too early to know whether it will increase retention rates — or show other measurable results, such as better grades.

But so far, the new way of teaching and learning has invigorated both the students and the professors who are trying it.

“Sometimes we get bogged down with our students,” said Tannah BromanBroman is the kinesiology degree coordinator., a principal lecturer in Exercise Science and Health Promotion who is teaching a ProMod group this semester.  “We think they’re not doing anything, they’re not doing well on the tests, they’re not engaged.

“This renews your faith in their ability to solve problems.”


ProMod provides a unique educational experience. Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now


Students shape ProMod

ProMod is driven by students, not faculty.

Students design how they want to tackle the project. They divide the work. They learn the course material when it’s relevant to their project.

About 40 freshmen are participating in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre's ProMod, called “The Art of the Long Now.” They are exploring how different media can imagine a new future for the human race.

At the end of the fall semester, the students will have created a video project that encourages college students to think about the future. Their end-of-the-year project will be a media and performance installation.

“I’m really interested in the idea that students can have an impact on the world around them directly in that freshman experience, not waiting until they’re older or being in rehearsal while in college — but having an impact right then,” said Jacob PinholsterPinholster also is an associate professor of performance design., director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, who is teaching the module.

That opportunity is what drew Martinez Mejia to choose the ProMod program.

“The reason I want to be an actor is so I can have my voice heard and make an impact on the world, and the moment I heard about this program, I thought it was exactly what I wanted to do,” she said.

The camaraderie has enriched the experience.

“I thought we were going to do one whole idea, but every one of us has an individual idea and when we combine our ideas, it makes it so much bigger than what we thought,” said Martinez Mejia, who is from Avondale, Arizona.

“We’re like a family instead of a hundred people in one room.”

The “soft skills” the students will learn are critical to the ProMod concept.

“They’re going to learn how to react to difficulty and change because they’re going to run up against their own obstacles, or I will introduce artificial ones,” Pinholster said.

“They will learn the idea of being responsible to another person, to listen, to understand the value of what another person says and how to measure it against your own ideas and make an objective call.

“They’ll learn to not be precious about the things they’ve created but to put them out there and take a risk.”

Broman said she has been surprised at who is succeeding in her kinesiology module.

“Sometimes the ‘A’ students are the hardest ones to get on board. … Sometimes they suffer because there isn’t always a right answer or a single answer.

“You’ll have the ‘B’ or ‘C’ students pulling the ‘A’ students along, saying ‘Let’s just try this.’ ”

It starts in high school

ASU developed ProMod after receiving a $4 million “First in the World” grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2014, the largest grant among the 24 institutions who were awarded. The competition, launched that year by President Barack Obama, was intended to find new ways to increase retention for students who are at higher risk of not completing their degrees — such as first-generation college-goers and teenagers from low-income families.

Of the 305 students who opted into ProMod this semester, nearly two-thirds receive the Pell Grant awards for low-income students. About 21 percent of the students are Hispanic.

Students volunteer to be in the modules and can opt out of continuing in the program.

The hands-on projects can level the playing field between students whose parents attended college and those whose parents are high school graduates who have no idea what university courses are like, according to Jeanne WilcoxWilcox is the principal investigator for the grant and is the Nadine Mathis Basha Professor of Early Childhood Education., a professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College who is on the ProMod team.

“I was very interested in the pipeline piece. We have a lot of kids who get to college and are not ready,” she said.

That’s another risk factor that leads to dropping out.

So ASU has partnered with Phoenix Union High School District to place ProMods into three high schools. Seniors at Cesar Chavez, Bioscience and Metrotech high schools take a module that combines English, communications, a science class and a sustainability class. If they matriculate at ASU next fall, they start with 13 credits earned from the ProMod.

Cesar Chavez has 21 studentsAll of the Cesar Chavez ProMod high school students are in the AVID program, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination and supports students who would be first-generation college students. in ProMod who were recruited because their transcripts qualified them for admittance to ASU.

Martin Irwin teaches the science part of the ProMod course at Cesar Chavez. His class is investigating ways to mitigate the effects of urban heat islandsUrban heat islands are cities that are warmer than rural areas because of heat absorbed by buildings and roads and from heat generated by energy use.. They’ve interviewed ASU experts and explored ideas such as reflective paint, rubberized concrete and vertically growing plant walls.

Irwin said the students stay more focused because they are together for four hours a day.

“The students truly enjoy what they’re doing, and it becomes more exciting to explore their ideas instead of coming up with my same ideas,” he said.

The students honed their writing skills by creating brochures to pitch their solutions, said English teacher Ben Pitts.

“English is there to support the science-driven questions. The English portion is taking what they learned in the research and communicating in a clear and concise manner,” he said.

Not all the students jumped at the chance to join the ProMod program, but were persuaded by Alesa Patterson, the AVID coordinator at Cesar Chavez.

“Any time you talk about college, the biggest concern for our students is paying for college,” Patterson said.

 “When you talk about the opportunity to receive credit for free, they start to listen. And their parents start to listen. Besides which, the classes prepare you for any college. These are college-level classes.”